What are we farming for? The question of where viability lies for the small farm is one that is hardly being addressed today, possibly because we don’t realize it’s a question. Culturally, we have almost lost the knowledge that our needs can be met without passing through the medium of cash exchange. The impulse that is moving many people (‘many’ — relative term; let’s say, rather: big number; small percentage of total population) to want to shift our dependence from an industrial-mechanical model to a soil-plant-and-or-animal model does not necessarily deprogram our commerce-trained images of provision. What that means, as we see it, and in plain language, is that often when people think they want to farm, they have two different images in their minds, and only a vague notion of how the two fit together – or whether they are even compatible.
Like this: we say we want to farm, and with the word ‘farm’ come images into our minds of baby animals, and lettuce seedlings luminous in black soil, and blue sky and white clouds, and a basket full of brown eggs — you get the picture; while somewhere else in our minds — and with the presumption that there is a connection — we are checking off the box that keeps an eye on our bank balance and credit rating and Amazon Prime account. We want a life other than the one we have now, one meshed into the natural world – that part is clear – but persistently, to our modern industrial minds, the necessities of that life, any life, come shrink-wrapped and with a UPC code. That is, we buy them. ‘I want to be a country person’ means, because we don’t know it can mean anything else, ‘I want to live in the country and do nature-things and identify myself as a nature-person, and pay my bills from that narrative.’ That consequent to our change of lifestyle some or many of our bills should go away, or how they should go away, seldom crosses our minds.
Don’t get us wrong. Kudos to the guys who can import compost and water and seeds on an acre or two of land somewhere within an hour of a prosperous city, use those materials to grow excellent produce for direct-marketing to city plates, and make fifty thousand dollars or so a year thereby; we honor you. You are doing a good thing and a meaningful one, and we’re glad someone is out there doing it. May there be many more of these, and may petro-derived vegetables become a thing of the past.
But – and here is the nub of our thought – but – for the sake of clarity, and that we may all know what we are wishing for when we find ourselves with an irrepressible itch to get out of town and get our hands dirty, let’s acknowledge a distinction between building an imports/exports business around nutrients conversion – compost/soil amendments/seeds/pumped water into organic vegetables (milk, eggs, meat) for cash exchange — and building a life and a lifestyle around a place, ecology, and community of plants and animals and people. Growing good food without chemicals in a healthy compost and receiving just remuneration for that congenial and exciting task, such that you can afford to pay your bills, including – and well do you deserve it –buying good organic meat, dairy and eggs from other folk with similar methods and values, is a great good. It is not the same thing, however, as settling down in a place and becoming part of its living community such that that place and that community, complementary to your respectful, attentive cooperation and care, feed, warm, teach and make you at home there, thus meeting your most basic needs directly and so removing them from the realm of cash provision. Because in the first instance you are still buying most of your necessities, so you need your organic growing to turn a tidy profit. In the second instance, your plant/animal/human/soil community is supplying many, even most, of your needs, so your cash requirements go down, and can be satisfied with an expenditure of less time. There’s farming, and there’s farming.
Which is not to say that there is not some state that combines the two: growing your own food and also supplying your need for cash from farm activities. A mature, ecologically whole farm can, usually does, generate nutrients beyond what is necessary for abundance on the farm, and it is these nutrients that have traditionally supplied export. But if from the outset we fail to see the distinction between these two things which are both called ‘farming’, we may easily end up chasing one half of the picture and wondering why the other is getting away from us.